Wisconsin and Northwestern entered Saturday looking like very similar teams. Both were coming off tough losses at the hands of Ohio State. Both teams had valid claims to the mantle of “2nd Best Team in the B1G”.
The teams looked similar leading into kickoff, but left Camp Randall on completely different trajectories as the Badgers routed Northwestern 35-6. The game left Badger fans with a lot to be happy about, but weaknesses still exist on a team that is hitting its stride.
Defensive dominance is the major storyline from Saturday as solid play on all three levels stifled Northwestern’s spread attack. The defense was able to bring more pressure on the quarterback than in any other game this year. By the end of the 3rd quarter the Badgers had doubled their sack total for the season.
After mustering a field goal in their second possession of the day, Northwestern’s offense was shut down the rest of the afternoon. After converting five 1st downs in the 1st quarter, the Wildcats only converted five more the rest of the afternoon. For the day, the Badgers allowed Northwestern to convert only two of 17 third downs.
The Badgers’ front seven shut down the running game, allowing only 44 rushing yards (albeit aided by 39 sack yards) on fewer than two yards per carry. The Wisconsin secondary was just as strong against the pass. Northwestern completed fewer than 50% of their pass attempts for less than 200 yards passing. Northwestern was simply overmatched when they had the ball.
A key piece of that defense was Sojourn Shelton. The true freshman shows improvement every week; any questions about his readiness to start have been erased. No doubt his interception in the 1st quarter was the highlight of his day, but most impressive was his consistent play throughout the game. He effectively shut down the passing game on his side of the field. Equally as important showed his small frame is not a concern, recording two solo stops on solid open field tackles.
Michael Caputo continues to impress as well. Playing his 2nd game in a row as the field linebacker, Caputo was equally adept bringing pressure on the quarterback as he was in coverage or tackling in space. Caputo brings speed and athleticism to the edge of the defense that isn't there with Kelly on the boundary; his style of play is a likely sneak peek at what the staff wants this defense to look like in the future.
The Offense had bright spots as well. The offensive line looked the best in pass protection it has all year. Of the three sacks they gave up, two were against a seven-man rush and on the 3rd Joel Stave pumped twice but never threw the ball. All three sacks were on Stave; he was simply too slow to get rid of the ball against the rush. Otherwise the offensive line kept the pass rush at bay, making the Badgers a threat both in the air and one the ground.
That strong pass protection allowed the offense to put forward the most balanced game thus far in the season, rushing for 286 yards while passing for 241 more. It’s not suggested losing Jared Abbrederis for most of the game was good for the offense, but it did appear to force Stave to distribute the ball better than he has at any point in the season. In total, four wide receivers, and nine receivers in total, caught passes on the day.
While the passing game had a new wrinkle to it, the Badger ground game was more of the same. Melvin Gordon had another dominating performance, highlighted by an electrifying 71 yard touchdown run that effectively put the game out of reach...in the 2nd quarter! While James White contributed a 100 yard game of his own, Gordon was again the star of the show.
Finally, and not to be overlooked, Kenzel Doe deserves mention as well. Doe cemented himself as the electrifying special teams player that he is, returning his first kickoff back from injury 50 yards, putting the offense in great field position.
Unfortunately for Doe his great return is largely overlooked as Stave threw an interception on the subsequent possession. While he was serviceable Saturday and certainly played well enough to keep Northwestern’s defense from selling out on the run, there are troubling aspects to his game.
As alluded to earlier, Stave holds on to the ball too long. That internal clock so critical to a good quarterback seems lacking at times when he has the ball. He isn't adjusting his timing in the face of pressure either. The best strategy when facing Stave in obvious passing downs is to bring pressure, forcing him to make a quick decision, something he doesn’t seem equipped to do.
When he does get the ball off, it’s often arriving too late. Stave is making a mistake common to young quarterbacks; he waits for his receiver to get open before delivering the pass rather than anticipating their routes and delivering a strike at just the right time. That may come with more experience, but it’s not there now.
Perhaps most troubling however are his accuracy issues. He struggles on short and medium length passes. He put a ball at Alex Erickson’s feet that was close to being a fumble. A 3rd down pass to Jacob Pedersen was only completed due to a great diving effort by the tight end. While he’s completing slightly more than 60% of his passes on the season, that number could be higher with a more consistent delivery.
On the defensive side of the ball there was little to complain about. Jakarrie Washington was forced into action with the injury to Darius Hillary, and looked like the true freshman he is for the first time this year. He had held his own in limited action to this point in the season, but Washington struggled in coverage at times with the ball thrown his way. While he didn’t give up much in the way of positive yardage to the offense, he definitely looked outclassed at times. If nothing else his play pointed to the lack of depth in the secondary.
While there are questions behind the starters in the secondary, after Saturday there are question as to whom the starter is – let alone the backup – in the kicking game. It was déjà vu all over again as Kyle French looked awful missing a 38 yard field goal early on in the game. French was relieved of his duties and Russell named the starter after the game (though Andrew Endicott is getting reps during practice this week) in what looks like a repeat of 2012.
Unless Endicott surprises many and proves to be a reliable field goal kicker – unlikely or he would have won the job long ago – this will be an Achilles heel of this offense for the rest of the season. French has shown what he can do thus far; Russell hasn’t shown to be much more in limited action this year or last.
The Badgers have chewed through the meat of the schedule – they likely won’t face another ranked team until a bowl game – and come out the other end in one piece. The defense is strong and looks like it’s improving every week. The offense, if imperfect, looks just balanced enough to be dangerous to nearly any opponent.
Looking at the remaining schedule, there isn’t an opponent left who looks better than the Badgers. They should be favored in every game. For this reason some are beginning to pick the Badgers to earn an at large BCS berth.
That certainly could happen, but the team has flaws that could derail that prediction. Joel Stave has the tendencies of a quarterback who could cost a game if he lays an egg. There are rivalry games that could always play closer than they are supposed. If the Badgers need a late kick to win there are questions. The Badgers don’t have an answer there.
This team is not perfect. It’s definitely not great. It’s probably just “very good”. Even so, it has six winnable games on the path to a double digit win season. That’s not a bad place to be with a new coaching staff in their first season. In fact, it’s a great place to be.